Elephants take revenge on village after herd member is killed by train

indian elephant photo
CC BY 2.0 Yathin S Krishnappa

Last week, near the village of Matari in eastern India, a train struck and killed an elephant. But while the unfortunate accident, a relatively common one in the region, is indeed regrettable -- from a human perspective, it was just one of the innumerable little tragedies accepted in the name of progress.

For members of the deceased elephant's herd, however, the death proved too upsetting to overlook.

According to the Times of India, since the incident left one of their members dead, the herd of around 15 elephants appear to be in mourning for their fallen friend. For the last several days, the group has remained nearby to where the train struck, an ongoing vigil that has disrupted other locomotives from passing through the area.

But while such displays of sadness among elephants aren't uncommon with the passing of a herd member, for this group, their emotions seem tinged with anger directed at the creatures responsible -- which they appear to understand as humans. In the days following the accident, the elephants have taken revenge on surrounding villages. Despite efforts to drive the impassioned animals away, the herd is reported to have damaged at least 10 homes in the area, including demolishing part of a schoolhouse.

Eventually, in an effort to restore order, forestry officials called upon a squad of elephant-chasers to drive the herd away using firecrackers. Nevertheless, the mourning elephants have persisted in their efforts to remain at the spot of the train-strike, compelled perhaps by a death ceremony among elephants that remains little-understood.

"Elephants often try to return to the site of such accidents as they believe that their mate has only been injured and could be rescued by them," says wildlife activist D S Srivastava. "Even when an elephant dies a natural death, their friends cover the body with bushes and small tree branches."

Sadly, such violent collisions between elephants and trains aren't rare. Since 2010, at least 50 elephants have been killed on train tracks in India -- part of a vital infrastructure used to connect isolated villages, but that cuts through unsettled swaths of forest. Since this incident has led to a backlash on the part of the herd, authorities have instructed train drivers "to be more careful."

Interestly, even more than a century ago when trains arrived to Asia as symbols of humanity's conquest to tame the wild, elephants didn't cede easily to the steam-powered juggernauts. In 1894, an elephant in Malaysia is said to have derailed a train in defense of its herd, sacrificing its life against the metal clad aggressor.

Human progress into the wild, of course, has yet to be derailed -- though judging by this herd's emotional reaction to this recent incident, neither has elephants' instinct to oppose it.

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